Wednesday, 25 November 2015

The Heron Men

I am working on a new project for release early next year. Await further instructions. For the time being, however, here is a sample.

Heron Men

They live amongst reeds and bull rushes, on the shores of lakes and rivers. Long limbed, lurching walkers, with the feathered heads and beaks and sharp yellow eyes of the heron, and the gracile limbs of the man. Like the birds which are their namesakes they are patient and quiet; they prefer to wait for the chance to kill. Though they are neither great makers nor thinkers, their intelligence in the hunt does not waver; their eyes are as adept at spotting a chink in a man’s armour as they are at seizing on the silvery flicker of a fish darting from shadow to shadow in the shallows of a pool. During the day they scatter around the waterways to hunt alone or in pairs; in the dusk they gather together in their reed huts, and sit with their heads hunched between their shoulders to sleep, stooped against the cold of the night.

HD 1+1, AC 7, #ATT 1, DMG by weapon (spear, axe, dagger, club), ML 7, No. Enc.: 1d2, or 3d20 in lair with a 3+3 HD big man and two 2+2 HD shamans
*Heron men receive a +2 bonus to hit rolls
*Heron men are never surprised, and surprise opponents 5 times out of 6

Saturday, 14 November 2015

The Death of HP Lovecraft

To write is to reach, through a pre-existing impersonality...that point at which language alone acts, "performs", and not oneself...

- Roland Barthes, "The Death of the Author"

In case you've not heard, HP Lovecraft is no longer the model of the trophy for the World Fantasy Awards, because he was manifestly a racist. Long-term readers of the blog will probably be able to guess at my views on this, and I don't particularly have any urge to sally forth into the lists of online debate over it, but I do think HP Lovecraft is a fascinating illustration of the way "the absence of the Author", as Barthes put it, "utterly transforms the modern text".

There are very few authors I can think of who, more than Lovecraft, embody the way in which a text can go through Barthes' process of "opening up". Anybody attempting to close his ouvre off, to put a "stop clause" on it, by interpreting it as the product of a racist has to ignore the way it has been plucked from his grasp and transmogrified into something utterly different from anything he may have intended. We readers have created an extensive mythos which he never envisaged and which still evolves and develops to this day. We have turned his ostensibly most terrifying creation into a child's stuffed toy or a joke for crude political satire. We have re-worked his stories into terrible films. Those of us who are Japanese, Mexican or African have recreated his work through our own cultural lens. We have flipped his male-centric universe. We have based board games and hard rock albums on his stories. We have joked about Necrotelecomnicon and created dishes like "Eggs Sothoth". We have mangled it and stomped all over it, smashed it up and put it back together, over and over and over again, and that process only seems to gather pace as Cthulhu in particular becomes a kind of internet totem or touchstone for nerd culture. Just as any Reader takes the text and interprets it in his or her own way, we as collective Readers have done precisely the same thing with HP Lovecraft's work as a text - writ large and to the extreme.

And players of Call of Cthulhu, perhaps more to the point, individually and collectively do the same thing in miniature for every session they play. They run games set in NorwayAustraliaEgypt and Kenya and anywhere else in the world besides. They create new Old Gods, reinterpret existing ones, bastardise Lovecraft's stories and invent their own. They imagine themselves as black female Harvard professors, Chinese artists, Irish philosophers and English rugby players engaging in his world, and it doesn't matter in the slightest because the text is now theirs and not his. The man himself was a bigot and an appalling one. But his work as a text is constituted by us and not him, in a myriad of ways limited only by the number of individuals who read it and the number of interpretations they give it.

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

A History of Violence

Violence is at its most shocking when it is presented as a matter of fact, without dramatic trappings. See examples below:

[Marsyas] stumbled upon the flute, which he had no sooner put to his lips than it played of itself, inspired by the memory of Athene’s music; and he went about Phrygia in Cybele’s train, delighting the ignorant peasants. They cried out that Apollo himself could not have made better music, even on his lyre, and Marsyas was foolish enough not to contradict them. This, of course, provoked the anger of Apollo, who invited him to a contest, the winner of which should inflict whatever punishment he pleased on the loser. Marsyas consented, and Apollo empanelled the Muses as a jury. The contest proved an equal one, the Muses being charmed by both instruments, until Apollo cried out to Marsyas: ‘I challenge you to do with your instrument as much as I can do with mine. Turn it upside down, and both play and sing at the same time.’ 
This, with a flute, was manifestly impossible, and Marsyas failed to meet the challenge. But Apollo reversed his lyre and sang such delightful hymns in honour of the Olympian gods that the Muses could not do less than give the verdict in his favour. Then, for all his pretended sweetness, Apollo took a most cruel revenge on Marsyas: flaying him alive and nailing his skin to a pine (or, some say. to a plane-tree). It now hangs in the cavern whence the Marsyas River rises. 
-Apollo's Nature and Deeds, 1700 BC?? 
Egil was matched to play against a boy named Grim, son of Hegg, of Hegg-stead. Grim was ten or eleven years old, and strong for his age. But when they played together Egil got the worst of it. And Grim made all he could of his advantage. Then Egil got angry and lifted up the bat and struck Grim, whereupon Grim seized him and threw him down with a heavy fall, and handled him rather roughly, and said he would thrash him if he did not behave. But when Egil got to his feet, he went out of the game, and the boys hooted at him.

Egil went to Thord and told him what had been done. 
Thord said: 'I will go with you, and we will be avenged on them.' 
He gave into his hands a halberd that he had been carrying. Such weapons were then customary. They went where the boys' game was. Grim had now got the ball and was running away with it, and the other boys after him. Then Egil bounded upon Grim, and drove the axe into his head, so that it at once pierced his brain. After this Egil and Thord went away to their own people.

- Egil's Saga, 1240 AD 
Thenne launcelot vnbarred the dore / and with his lyfte hand he held it open a lytel / so that but one man myghte come in attones / and soo there came strydyng a good knyghte a moche man and large / and his name was Colgreuaunce / of Gore / and he with a swerd strake at syr launcelot myȝtely and he put asyde the stroke / and gaf hym suche a buffett vpon the helmet / that he felle grouelynge dede within the chamber dore / and thenne syre Launcelot with grete myghte drewe that dede knyght within the chamber dore / and syr Launcelot with helpe of the Quene and her ladyes was lyghtely armed in syr Colgreuaunce armour

-Le Morte Darthur, Sir Thomas Malory, 1485 
Some time toward midnight Tom Buchanan and Mrs. Wilson stood face to face discussing, in impassioned voices, whether Mrs. Wilson had any right to mention Daisy’s name. 
“Daisy! Daisy! Daisy!” shouted Mrs. Wilson. “I’ll say it whenever I want to! Daisy! Dai ——” 
Making a short deft movement, Tom Buchanan broke her nose with his open hand. 
-The Great Gatsby,  F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1925

The F. Scott Fitzgerald scene may be the most affecting of all of them. Not just because it's a man hitting a woman, which is quite rightly something that retains its capacity to shock, but also because of the efficiency of the description: Tom is quite deliberate in his brutality, and you understand that in just a dozen words.

It would be wrong to say I "like" violence in an RPG session to be presented in that sort of fashion, because that's the wrong word, but I think violence which is sudden, quick and matter-of-fact (even casual) is the most interesting kind. It is more realistic, but it also makes you reflect on the consequences. Not as in "Ooh, isn't it awful?" But as in, "Okay, the person is dead. Now what is going to happen, and also what did it mean?"

Friday, 6 November 2015

Is Enthusiasm the Most Important Thing?

On blogs, discussion forums, and so forth, it's common to discuss all manner of DMing "best practices", which I'm sure people reading this blog will be quite familiar with. Some of the most obvious best practices for me are no railroading, rolling dice in the open, and never fudging a result. You will likely have others.

But I do increasingly wonder whether the most important thing is not merely enthusiasm. I work at a university, so I deliver about two lectures a week during term-time. There are all kinds of lecturing "best practices" which fill the instruction books and compulsory work-based-learning courses we poor saps have to do, but one absolute categorical, cast-iron requirement that rarely gets mentioned is simply that the lecturer has to be enthusiastic. He has to make the subject interesting, or the students won't engage, and while there are all manner of tricks for that, he can really get away with doing anything as long as he brings energy and enthusiasm and positivity to it.

(Now, of course, that requirement is subject to a lot of common sense caveats. If I am delivering a lecture on contract law and I talk enthusiastically and passionately about how to keep koi carp for 50 minutes, the lecture will not be successful. But you get my point.)

The same really holds true for DMing. As long as you are doing the basic things, I don't think it matters a huge amount as long as you are communicating a sense of interest to the players. I hesitate to use the word "fun", because that doesn't necessarily describe the sense that the DM wishes to convey; "interest" is broader and more appropriate. If you are interested in the game then nine times out of ten that's probably sufficient to keep the players interested too. I think back on good gaming sessions that I've enjoyed in the past as a player, and I can think of quite a few where things were a bit railroady or the DM was fudging dice results, but which I liked all the same because of what the DM brought to the table - literally and figuratively.

Thursday, 5 November 2015

The Economics, Anthropology and Sociology of Small Press RPG Publishing

If you were going to caricature neo-classical economics you'd say that it's bullshit because people don't just act to maximise their wealth and react to economic incentives in their commercial behaviour. Actually what they choose to make, what they choose to sell, and who they choose to sell it to, is governed by all manner of irrational choices. This is perfectly true. People do things because they like them. Or because their father did them. Or because they don't think they can do anything else. And so on.

I listened to this episode of Econtalk with huge interest earlier today. It's full of fascinating observations, but one of them is that traditional economic textbooks and economic studies of the firm tend to start off with supply and demand: what determines how much stuff a firm produces? But actually this is in many ways the least interesting thing you could possible discuss, and ignores much more fundamental questions - how do people choose what market to be in? Why do they make the things they make?

Somebody could write an interesting article about the DIY RPG hobby. Here you have a selection of people around the world who are largely working on RPG products part-time, who are doing so mostly because they enjoy it (and partly because it makes them some money), and who seem to plough quite a lot of the profits they get back into the industry by buying other people's stuff. Customers buy products partly based on what is good, but also, I think, partly out of a sense of good will: there is a feeling of comradeship in the hobby that influences purchases. There no awareness of or care for economic profit - I daresay I could have made much more money using the time I spent producing Yoon-Suin by doing something else. But that doesn't account for the pleasure I got out of it.

Adam Smith was a genius because he understood this so well: we may "truck, barter and exchange" in some contexts, but actually things like emotion, reputation, and our sense of how others see us is of much greater significance in others. Yoon-Suin may not have been economically profitable, but it was certainly profitable in other ways, if you mean by "profit" the enjoyment of seeing the finished product (despite its flaws), the pleasure of hearing that other people are using it, and, let's face it, the ego boost that comes from people telling me it's good. There may have been an opportunity cost associated with the project (I could have made much more money doing freelance translation work) but think of the opportunity cost in pleasure associated with doing things that you find boring!

Somebody could write something very deep, rich and textured about the economics, anthropology and sociology of small press RPG publishing. They really really could.

Monday, 2 November 2015

The Duke of Doves

In the cold, quiet halls of the Mountain, the Duke of Doves stirs. His shrouded heavy head rising from under sheets of purple silk which slowly fall away. He is the first of the guardians the Ancients left behind them as they journeyed upwards, and he has lain silent and sleeping for many years. Yet for the first time in a long eon he senses something: An entrance. It is enough to wake him and enough perhaps even to invigorate him sufficiently to remember the reason for which he was created. In the cold, quiet halls he feels life creep over him like the fingertips of a lover tracing over the dozing body of her man.

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

The Adventurous History of The Mandarin and His Six Wives

Things are a bit tough at the moment so blogging will be light. But a trawl through a local antique shop turned up this book the other day, and at £2 it would have been rude not to buy it. Billed on the back as "the most famous of all Chinese classic novels" (though I'd never heard of it), it was apparently suppressed because of its "detailed descriptions of love-making and erotic fantasies" (phwoar). It centres on the life of Hsi Men ("a corrupt and amorous mandarin who dies of an overdose of aphrodisiacs") and his dissolute friends ("nine wild, smooth-tongued, useless fellows who kept him company in his debaucheries"). It is, it seems, relevant to my interests.

The eccentrically capitalised chapter headings are worth the price of admission alone. Here are some examples (the last is my favourite):

"While in his Cups Lai Wang talks himself into Perdition. Lotus Petal swallows Shame and hangs herself twice."
"Grass Snake and Road Rat administer a Thrashing to Doctor Bamboo Hill. Mistress Ping is inflamed with a renewed Passion for Hsi Men."
"Master Han makes the Dead live again in his Picture. The Groom Shu Tung secretly departs with swelling Sails."
"Gold Lotus abandons herself to a Slave. Astrologer Liu aids her with his Magic and does a good Stroke of Business for himself."

Monday, 19 October 2015

Underworld Fortresses

This is a prototype for New Troy. It is an underworld location. As with Yoon-Suin, I am taking a tool-kit approach: there will be pieces of blank dungeon maps which the DM can position and fill-in as he or she likes. Each piece or template can then have its nature randomly generated.

For some reason blogger isn't displaying the table correctly when I preview it. You get the idea.

Great Fortress

Eldjotnar and hrimthursar rule the deepest parts of the underworld in their great fortresses of stone. Their struggles are unending. In summer the eldjotnar reign in flames and heat and the hrimthursar hide in isolated places. In winter the frost and cold of the hrimthursar has dominion and the eldjotnars’ power diminishes to nothing. In between there is constant war. Each stronghold changes hands, back and forth, with the passing of the seasons – the only constancy being the thickness and strength of the great stone walls, and the temporary nature of the allegiance of the thralls, which shifts like a sapling in the wind.

A Great Fortress is ruled by d3 giants (eldjotnar in summer; hrimthursar in winter; roll to determine in spring/autumn), who may be lovers, family members, comrades, or rivals. There are 1d100 loyal niflungar or rjufendr per giant. The fortress also has a population of thralls (in d3 groups), whose allegiance changes depending on who controls it.    

Use a Great Fortress template to plot out its layout, or create your own.

Thralls (1d3)
Summer/Winter Event
Spring/Autumn Event
Landvaettir (1d30x3)
The giants are reinforcing their fortress and the thralls are extra-vigilant (never surprised)
The rulers have all been killed in battle, leaving the fortress in anarchy
Lindworms (1d12)
The giants are away at war or hunting
The fortress has struck by an earthquake, flooding areas with lava
Dvergar (1d30x3)
A false sense of security prevails and the thralls are complacent (always surprised)
Large sections of the fortress have been reduced to rubble
Berzerkers (1d30x3)
A group of captives have arrived from a raid on the upper world
The fortress has been taken over by a dragon in its weakness
Trolls (1d12)
The fortress is plagued by a shadow walker
One of the groups of thralls is plotting rebellion
Hamingja (1d30x3)
A great feast is being held
The fortress has been flooded by melting ice
Saehrimnir (1d12)
The giants are plotting an attack on the upper world
The fortress is under siege by the opposite side
Ettins (1d30x3)
The fortress is at peace and rich in treasure (roll twice when determining treasure)
Enemy patrols in the area are seeking to employ spies or assassins
Thurse (1d12)
One of the giants has come under the sway of a Dis, who is now the real ruler
The fortress is divided equally between eldjotnar and hrimthursar
Roll again, double population
A group of einherjar have come from the glorious afterlife to do battle
There is civil war amongst the rulers (roll again if only one ruler)

Treasure Types: A, L, M, N, O

Friday, 16 October 2015

About A Great Painting

This is my favourite fantasy picture - as much as you can ever have a genuine favourite piece of art, book, film, song, etc. It's John Howe's painting of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and it's been my home desktop wallpaper for a long time. I never get tired of looking at it.

I think partly this is just because the landscape is reminiscent of the kind of landscapes which I love and am often hiking or camping in: brooding, desolate moors. It feels like a stylised, approximation of somewhere wild in the British Isles, and if you like that sort of thing, the picture resonates.

I like the way Gawain's shield stands out - the stark white pentangle against black, set against the muted and predominantly green background. To me it's visually but also conceptually striking: the Green Knight is part of nature, almost as one with the background; the knight Sir Gawain is most certainly not.

I also love how Howe refuses to grandstand, which is a hallmark of his work in general: there's no melodrama. Rather the opposite. Sir Gawain looks almost nonchalant as he chats to the Green Knight. Something is going on, of course, but at the same time, it's not a big deal in the grand scheme of things - the world is as it is and always will be, whatever happens. In that sense the atmosphere of the painting reminds me of Bruegel's Landscape with the Fall of Icarus in the way it renders a profound myth humble.

This is reinforced by the horse over there in the bottom left corner. I love that horse. It has no interest in Green Knights, beheadings, struggles for power, broken promises. It's cold and lonely and all it wants is shelter. The painting is as much as, if not more, about the horse than anything else. An animal at the whim of man, dragged along on a quest, but still with its own quiet animal concerns. The picture says a lot about man and nature, and seems to my mind to reconsider how that theme is treated in the original poem, which of course contrasts the chaos of nature with the orderliness of human chivalry. The picture shows man as an interloper in the natural order of things, and his presence is ambiguous rather than ordering: the viewer's sympathy is not so much with the knight but with his poor old horse.

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Odes to a Glacier Dungeon

It's been a long time since I inflicted some of my crappy art on the readers of this blog. (That's probably because I draw a picture of anything about once a year on average.) As an added bonus, this post also complains crappy poetry. I felt a strong need to write some haiku about a glacier dungeon.

It's a picture of "The Devil's Tongue", which is a glacier flowing into the sea. In the foreground you see the sea itself, full of icebergs. To the East and West of the ice face, where the glacier tumbles into the sea, are cold rocky beaches. The glacier itself cuts through mountains. In order to get into the ice caves inside it, adventurers must climb up the ice face into one of two entrances ("The Hag's Tunnel" and "The Old Sack Pit") or hike across the surface and enter through a crevasse in its top. This may result in death; I have the climbing rules worked out, and the next step is hypothermia.

The Tongue

The Tongue is cold white
Under white snow, whiter ice
So white yet so blue

Cold imbued with cold
The cold wind cannot enter
The cold wind which howls

The Tongue needs no warmth
The sun peers down impotent
From the cold white sky